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Strehlow’s egg

by Craig Robertson
Publish date
26 August 2011
Comments (5)
Craig is a Melbourne writer with an interest in natural history. He has been a museum volunteer in Birds and Mammals for several years.

Amongst the greatest treasures of the museum are its bird egg collections; their delicate beauty is outstanding. A number of the collections were made privately before the practice was ended by government in the 1950s, one the best of them by Norman J. Favaloro. He was a solicitor in Mildura and a leading field ornithologist. He published many papers on his work and was appointed an Honorary Associate in the Ornithology Department in the then National Museum of Victoria. His position enabled him to continue collecting, and towards the end of his life he presented his collection to the museum, complete with detailed documentation. It is one of the largest collections with 1500 clutches nestled in boxes neatly aligned within finely crafted glass-topped drawers in a cedar cabinet, one of the most beautiful in the bird room.

Favaloro's cabinet Favaloro's cabinet.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria

Amongst the thousands of specimens I find one particular treasure that draws my eye. Set marks were used by collectors to identify clutches. On this one is pencilled: "C.A. Red-tail Cockatoo, 17.5.1919, C.S." The Red-tailed Black Cockatoo, Calyptorhynchus banksii (once known as Banks' Cockatoo for Joseph Banks) is one of the most magnificent of the cockatoo family. It is under threat in parts of Australia, especially Victoria, but central Australia is one of its strongholds, where it is associated with rain in Indigenous culture.

  Calyptorhynchus banksii macrorhynchus Mounted specimen of Calyptorhynchus banksii macrorhynchus, one of five sub-species of the Red-tailed Black Cockatoo.
Image: Jon Augier
Source: Museum Victoria

Like most collectors Favaloro swapped items with others to build his collection. In this case he has acquired an egg originally collected by one "C.S.". The data slip states: "Chas. Strehlow. Egg rested on wood dust in a hollow spout of a Red Gum at height of 20 feet up. Bird seen leaving nest." In 1919 Strehlow, a tall, strong man was 47 years old. But without doubt the egg would have been collected by an Aboriginal companion.

Strehlow's egg Strehlow's egg.
Image: Craig Robertson
Source: Museum Victoria

'Charles' was the Reverend Carl Strehlow, a German missionary who ran the Lutheran mission at Hermannsburg from 1894 until his death in 1922. He was also an ethnologist, and has been a rather forgotten figure in the broader discipline of anthropology in Australia. Strehlow's mission was among the central Australian tribes, in particular the Arrernte (or 'Aranda' to use his own spelling). They were the same people studied by Walter Baldwin Spencer, a long serving (1899 to 1928) and perhaps the most famous of Museum Victoria's former directors, and his colleague Frank Gillen.

Strehlow published the results of his ethnological fieldwork in German only, in a series of tomes from 1907 to 1920. They were a major resource for such luminaries of the time as Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud and Bronislaw Malinowski. But continental schools of thought were rejected by British-oriented social anthropologists who saw themselves as supporters of Darwinian science.

In the early years of the 20th century there was much controversy over the nature and origin of  religion among tribal peoples. Strehlow became embroiled in it. His reputation suffered from a clash with Spencer. Then World War I came. He was shocked by the outbreak of anti-German sentiment. Alhough a naturalized citizen, he found himself obliged to register as an enemy alien. By the time he collected the egg near the mission in 1919, he was hardly even a footnote in the literature of Australian anthropology.

Spencer continued on his illustrious and productive career until his death at Tierra Del Fuego in 1929. Strehlow's fate was not just obscurity, but a painful end. Just three years after collecting the egg, in October 1922 the strains of his work and life in general brought on an attack of the condition then known as dropsy, a massive swelling of the body due to accumulation of fluid. Strehlow needed hospitalisation urgently. His body was so bloated he could only travel strapped in a chair perched in the back of the old horse-drawn mission cart.

He left the mission for the last time with an Arrernte choir singing a hymn derived from J. S. Bach. As he was taken down the dry bed of the Finke River every bump on the track caused pain in his body, every thought the torments of Job. His family and their Arrernte friends were trying to get him to Oodnadatta and the train down to Adelaide. But when they reached Horseshoe Bend he died. The episode is recounted by his son Ted Strehlow in a great memoir, Journey to Horseshoe Bend. The story has what may be thought of as an operatic tragedy about it, and indeed a cantata of the same name was written by the Australian composer Andrew Schultz with the librettist Gordon Kalton Williams, and performed at the Sydney Opera House in 2003.

It is a rich and fascinating part of Australia's history, all there in one little egg in that beautiful Favaloro cabinet.


Spencer and Gillen Project

Ornithology Collection

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